America's longest war will finally end this year, when the last of the U.S. combat troops who stormed into Afghanistan in 2001 withdraw by Dec. 31. While that will be cause for relief in the U.S., Afghanistan is bracing for possible disaster. What happens over the next 12 months could determine whether that ill-fated country limps toward stability or plunges into even greater violence.
Afghanistan has paid dearly for more than a decade of war but is better off in many ways. Al-Qaeda is gone, the Taliban control little territory, millions of girls are attending school, and such metrics as cell-phone access and public health have soared. Those gains will long be fragile, however, and whether they promptly collapse after Uncle Sam departs will depend on how 2014 unfolds.
Perhaps the most important question is the fate of a security agreement negotiated between the Obama Administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Under a deal struck with handshakes and smiles in November, the U.S. will leave behind a residual force of up to 12,000 troops to conduct training and counterterrorism operations. That will be crucial to shoring up a 320,000-man Afghan military and police force that is short on discipline, airpower and logistical support.